The Life of Irene McCormack

Many who read this will have heard of the death of Irene McCormack. This 52-year-old Australian woman was executed in Peru by Shining Path guerrilla fighters. She was one of a group of five captives who were ordered to lie on the ground in a line, face down. The other four were Peruvian men, respected elders in the village of Huasahuasi where they all lived. All were shot at close range through the back of the head; Irene was first.

I heard the news on BBC radio while working among Cambodians who were fleeing from the Khmer Rouge. Irene McCormack was a friend of mine.

I would rather tell you about her life than about her death. Irene and I were about the same age, she a little younger. She joined the Josephite community at the age of 17. Our life stories were different, so were our personalities, but we understood each other.  

Irene grew up on a farm in the small town of Trayning in Western Australia. She loved dancing, golf, tennis and barracking for the West Coast Eagles. None of those interests would have brought us together but the Josephite vision attracted us both.

Today I have with me words written by the Josephite community in Peru. ‘We work to promote human dignity; empowering people to strive to transform their world. It is about living among people who are poor, sharing their lives and knowing their potential … making their cause our cause’. Irene and I shared that vision. In Australia Irene was an educator. When she came to this final place of Huasahuasi she helped to make basic education available to young children and women. She knew that the co-operative soup kitchen was a place for the mothers to experience the dignity of striving together, while ensuring that nobody would go hungry. Such small co-operatives changed lives and enabled women to become leaders.

Huasahuasi is high in the Peruvian mountains, accessed by way of precarious bus routes from Lima. The journey of 278 km can take eight and a half hours or more. Most people here struggle to make a living by growing potatoes or maize on the slopes of the surrounding mountains. In the last years of Irene’s life she forged strong friendships here. Sister Dorothy was her companion in this small Josephite household. The two worked hard, prayed together and joined the simple celebrations of their neighbours in the village square or the church. Peruvian villagers know how to dance; Irene loved to dance with them. A little music on a cassette player can spark hours of energetic dancing. She also delighted in walking among the mountain peaks, the awe of the vistas there. No chance of golf or tennis here, but I am pretty sure Irene would find a way to keep track of the West Coast Eagles, albeit long after their matches were played.

Irene prayed for the grace to live fearlessly. She wrote, ‘I choose to live this life without fear and to live wholeheartedly in the present moment’.

At dusk one evening, when Dorothy was in Lima for medical treatment and Irene was alone in the convent, there came an urgent knocking on the door. A man’s voice demanded that she open the door and come out. She hesitated. When he threatened to break the door down, so it is said, she stepped outside and was jostled down to the town square where the four men were already held captive.

Local people argued for their safety, insisting that all five were good people, that Irene was an Aussie not a Yankee. But the Shining Path guerrilla fighters retorted that there would be no “dialogue”, only “sentencing”. A group of young people formed around Irene and edged her into the village crowd, pulling a knitted cap over her head as her hair was shining in the moonlight. The effort was to no avail. She was sentenced to die. She was fifty-two years old.

Peruvians remember these times as “The Years of Terror”. Across Peru an estimated 70,000 people died; most were ordinary civilians. In Huasahuasi village there were, during these years, twenty or thirty victims.

Sometime after Irene’s death, when I was no longer living in Cambodia, I was asked to visit our sisters in Peru twice a year. I was their link with the leadership in Australia.

Memories of “The Years of Terror” were still very close. In Lima I was invited to walk between concentric circles of stones. Each was inscribed with the name, the birth date and the death date of a victim of the Shining Path. If the stones could talk this prayerful walk could tell thousands of stories: infants, very old people, whole families. Irene’s stone sometimes had a rose beside it. Once a yellow ribbon.

At the time of Irene’s death, the Josephites owned no land in the village cemetery. A generous family offered a burial niche in the tomb used for their loved ones. We were grateful at the time; there was time-consuming red tape involved in foreigners buying a burial plot in a remote cemetery. Eventually were able to thank the family, purchase land for Irene to have her own grave and organise a reburial. When the day came it was an opportunity that drew together Irene’s friends from Huasahuasi and from Lima. And I was there from Australia. They came with armfuls of flowers. The hills reverberated with songs. The friends gathered all around the coffin, prayed and sang hymns. There was story after story in a worthy ceremony.

We met outside the cemetery, where we shared food.

I stood in the town square where Irene died. The wall was bright with ornately decorated words: ‘Make me an instrument of your peace … Where there is hatred let me sow love.’